Aug 192014
 
THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


M. R. D. MEEK – A Mouthful of Sand. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1989. Worldwide, paperback, 1990. First published in the UK by Collins, hardcover, 1988.

   I quite like M.R.D. Meek’s stories about Lennox Kemp, and A Mouthful of Sand is no exception. Kemp, a lawyer, was barred from practice when he took money to pay his wife’s gambling debts. She disappeared along with his reputation, and he served a lonely six years’ penance as a private investigator.

   Now he’s back in the law, doing very well, having a relationship (albeit uneasy) with Penelope Marsden. His life is coming back together; perhaps he will marry Penelope and banish the loneliness he fears so much.

   Here a tycoon asks him for a written opinion on the state of British marriage law. Lennox complies, then [leaves] to go on vacation to Cornwall, coincidentally to the coastal town where the tycoon’s wife has gone to recover from severe depression. But her condition worsens, and the battered head of a man is found on the beach. Soon Kemp finds himself ensnared — heart and mind.

   Very effective storytelling, full of subtleties and dense with expressive language.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes: Since Lennox Kemp is a Private Eye, there’s no place better to look for information about than the Thrilling Detective website. There Kevin Burton Smith says, in part: “… while waiting to be reinstated (the events leading up to his disbarment are related in the first book in the series), he earns his daily bread as an op for the London-based McCready’s Detective Agency. But he is eventually reinstated, and this spare yet often elegant series, full of rich characterization, and sharp writing, continues, with Kemp as a particular hands-on type of attornney, part Perry Mason and part Lew Archer.”

   His creator was in real life Margaret Reid Duncan Meek (1918-2009), a retired lawyer.

       The Lennox Kemp series —

With Flowers That Fell (1983)

The Sitting Ducks (1984)
Hang the Consequences (1984)
The Split Second (1985)
In Remembrance of Rose (1986)

A Worm of Doubt (1987)
A Mouthful of Sand (1988)
A Loose Connection (1989)
This Blessed Plot (1990)
Touch and Go (1992)

Postscript to Murder (1996)
If You Go Down to the Woods (2001)
The Vanishing Point (2003)
Kemp’s Last Case (2004)

 Posted by at 11:58 pm
Aug 182014
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


HENRI WEINER – Crime on the Cuff. William Morrow, hardcover, 1936.

   Cartoonists who are detectives are rare. Also infrequent are one-armed detectives. In this novel, John Brass combines the two as he investigates a dual kidnapping plus murder on his doorstep. Meant to be amusing and exciting, the novel fails on both scores.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bio-Bibliographic Notes:   This is the one of two mystery novels by author Stephen Longstreet (1907-20020, published under this name. The other is The Case of the Severed Skull, a paperback reprint of Death Walks on Cat Feet (1938), published in hardcover as by Paul Haggard.

   Also in the late 30s Longstreet wrote three other works of crime fiction as by Haggard, all three with a series character named Mike Warlock, about whom I know nothing, in spite of the interesting sounding name.

   As a literary novelist and playwright, Stephen Longstreet turns out to be significant enough to have a Wikipedia page of his own, and as a screenwriter, even more credits on IMDb. Says the biography page for him there: “Studied in Paris and at Rutgers and Harvard Universities, graduating from the New York School of Fine and Applied Art (Parsons) in 1929. [...] Writer, cartoonist, and painter. He published over one hundred novels and five books on jazz, illustrated with his own drawings and watercolors.”

 Posted by at 11:09 pm
Aug 112014
 

JOSEPHINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON – They Died in the Spring. Hammond Hammon & Co., UK, hardcover, 1960. Linford Mystery Library, UK, softcover, 1990. No US edition.

   This is the second of three recorded cases that Chief-Inspector James Flecker of Scotland Yard is known to have worked on. The first was Gin and Murder (1959), the third and final one was Murder Strikes Pink (1963). They Died in the Spring takes place in April, not surprisingly, in a part of England called Bretfordshire, where a retired Colonel has been found shot to death. An accident, it is thought at first – the old gentleman is found fallen in a woods with his shotgun nearby — but gradually it becomes clear that it is a case of murder instead.

   That Colonel Barclay had recently announced his intention to plough over the local cricket field, land which in truth he owned, may have led someone in respond in anger, but the Colonel was the sort of person who seems to have made enemies easily. But what could be the connection between his death and that of a young female German house servant in the neighborhood? The case is too much for the local police force, and Flecker is called in to assist.

   Much of what follows is tedious police work. Lots of questions, lots of answers, not all of which agree which each other, lots of notes taken on the backs of envelopes, lots of conferring with Detective-Sergeant Browning, who is working with Flecker on the case. There is something of a Midsomer Murders feel to the investigation, except that Inspector Barnaby is happily married, while Flecker has regrets.

   From pages 122-123:

   He [Fletcher] felt detached and solitary among the pleasure-seeking family parties and fell to reckoning how old his children would be by now if he and Pauline had stayed together ad had them. […] He shook himself and superimposed the gray shadow of police pay and promotion across his mental picture of the blue and white sitting-room. Though he was a useful backroom boy, he was hardly the sort to rise high; he was too impatient of routine, too unconventional. He’d need superintendent’s pay at least to marry the sort of woman with whom he wanted to spend the rest of his life and, by the time he had it, ho would be bald, eccentric and egocentric and have false teeth. He sighed and turned his mind back to the case.

   The case is, one must admit, rather routine, consisting largely of the breaking down of alibis. As an author, Pullein-Thompson seems more adept at describing the local countryside in a fashion that caught my attention more than did the case itself.

   From page 131:

   Ten minutes brought him [Flecker] to the spot in the larch plantation where Colonel Barclay had died, and he stood there for a time, lost in thought. The larches had not yet grown tall enough to shade the track and so, at Flecker’s feet, primroses raised pale, naïve faces and flamboyant dandelions, the extroverts of the spring flowers splashed their exuberant yellow among the grass. It was very quiet; Sunday had stilled the tractors, and Flecker collected the sounds one by one. Somewhere away on the hill a dog barked, there was the distant angry moo of a protesting cow, nearer two birds sang, and in the yellow flowers of a self-sown sallow beside the tracks, the bees droned ceaselessly. Man oughtn‘t to do his dirty work in such places, thought Flecker, he should murder beside the railway line or behind the gasworks, but then he reminded himself that a week ago the woods had not looked like this and that track had been a cold grim place.

   I confess that I didn’t follow the investigation all that closely, but I definitely enjoyed the book, especially the ending, which had nothing to do with nabbing the killer, but which took me by surprise. I had to look back and check to see, but yes, the clues were all there.

R.I.P. JOSEPHINE PULLEIN-THOMPSON (1924-2014). Besides the three Flecker mysteries, Josephine Pullein-Thompson was far better known in England for her pony books written primary for girls. According to her online obituary in The Guardian on 22 June 2014, “In the equestrian novels that she, her mother Joanna Cannan and her younger twin sisters Diana and Christine, wrote – nearly 200 between them – riding horses was also the way that girls could show that they were just as good as boys, if not better. Their heroines relished mucking out stables and the freedom of galloping away across the countryside, and the pluckiest were able to turn bedraggled nags into rosette-winning champions, later returning home to celebrate with a truly ‘supersonic tea’.”

   Joanna Cannan, by the way, was also a mystery writer, with some thirteen works of crime and detective fiction included in Hubin.

 Posted by at 12:19 pm
Aug 042014
 
FIRST YOU READ, THEN YOU WRITE
by Francis M. Nevins


   My July column, the longest I’ve ever written, was completely devoted to the Mike Hammer TV series of 1958-59 but there are a couple of related items that I couldn’t squeeze in last time. I trust no Hammerhead will mind if I begin with these.

   Two questions surrounding the series caught my attention as I was fiddling with the column. First, was there a Hammer pilot episode and if so which was it? The order of original broadcast in New York or any other city doesn’t help because it was different in every market and completely up to the station owning the local rights. Copyright registration dates don’t help either, nor does the order in which they appear on the recently released DVD set. If the episodes had production numbers, I haven’t been able to find them.

   However, I think I’ve solved the puzzle while slowly making my way through the set. Throughout the series the role of Hammer’s friendly enemy Captain Pat Chambers is played by Bart Burns. But in one early segment there’s a plainclothes cop who’s referred to only as Pat but is clearly meant to be Chambers. The actor who plays him is not Bart Burns but Ted De Corsia, who also played Sergeant Velie for much of the run of the Adventures of Ellery Queen on radio.

   The episode is “Death Takes an Encore,” directed by Richard Irving and written by Frank Kane based on one of his short stories about New York PI Johnny Liddell (“Return Engagement,” Manhunt, February 1955, collected in Johnny Liddell’s Morgue, Dell pb #A117, 1956). For my money, that was the pilot.

   The second question also involves Frank Kane. Back in the late Forties he wrote around 45 scripts for that classic radio series The Shadow, and for several years there have been rumors that at least one of his Hammer scripts was a rewrite of one of his Shadow scripts. But which?

   I believe I’ve solved that puzzle too. Another early episode written by Kane, “Letter Edged in Blackmail,” shares a springboard with Kane’s Shadow script “Etched with Acid” (March 17, 1946): the protagonist in both tries to shut down a racket in which wealthy women with heavy gambling debts are forced to fake robberies of their own jewels. As neither Mike Hammer nor The Shadow would ever dream of saying: Q.E.D.

***

   Death has claimed two actors who were well known for having played TV detectives. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. was the first to go. He died on May 2 at age 95, reportedly while mowing the lawn of his house in the horse-ranching community of Solvang, California.

   People of my generation first got to know Zimbalist on the Warner Bros. TV series 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64), in which he starred as ultra-suave PI Stuart Bailey. No sooner had that series left the air than he started playing Federal agent Lewis Erskine on the even longer-running The FBI (1965-74).

   When I met him — very briefly, at a film festival in Memphis — he was over 80 and still looked great. Judging from the photos of him I found on the Web, he still looked great in his 90s. Way to go! May we all be so lucky.

   The other recently deceased tele-icon was James Garner, who at age 86 was found dead in his Los Angeles home on July 19. Like Zimbalist he was best known for two long-running TV series but his were in different genres.

   His earliest claim to fame was as star of the Warner Bros. Western series Maverick (1957-63) but his interest for us stems from his years playing an un-macho PI in The Rockford Files (1974-80).

   In his autobiography The Garner Files (2011) he claimed that Bret Maverick and Jim Rockford were basically the same character, but he never said and probably never knew that the character from which both were sort of spun off was an icon of U.S. detective fiction, namely that quintessential American wiseass Archie Goodwin.

   I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if only there had been a Nero Wolfe movie with the middle-aged Orson Welles as Wolfe and the young Garner as Archie!

***

   Both Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip were created by the same man, who was also a co-producer and, as John Thomas James, a frequent scriptwriter for The Rockford Files .

   He first came to attention, however, as a mystery novelist. Roy Huggins (1914-2002) debuted in the genre with The Double Take (1946), whose protagonist, PI Stuart Bailey, was a character and first-person narrator owing a great deal to Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and very different from the suave and perhaps a bit bland Bailey of 77 Sunset Strip.

   Anthony Boucher’s review for the San Francisco Chronicle (February 3, 1946) was spot on as usual: “Mr. Huggins adds nothing to the established hardboiled formula but does an unusually able job within its possibly overfamiliar frame.”

   At that time, with Dashiell Hammett having written nothing since The Thin Man (1934), “the established hardboiled formula” meant Chandler. The latter may not have read The Double Take himself but he clearly found out about it and, as witness his letter to fellow pulp veteran Cleve F. Adams (September 4, 1948), he was not amused.

   “I don’t know Roy Huggins and have never laid eyes on him. He sent me an autographed copy of his book … with his apologies and the dedication he says the publishers would not let him put in it. In writing to thank him I said his apologies were either unnecessary or inadequate and that I could name three or four writers who had gone as far as he had, without his frankness about it …. I personally think that a deliberate attempt to lift a writer’s personal tricks, his stock in trade, his mannerisms, his approach to his material, can be carried too far — to the point where it is a kind of plagiarism, and a nasty kind because the law gives no protection…. Somebody who read Huggins’ book told me that it was full of scenes which were modeled in detail on scenes in my books, just moved over enough to get by.”

   Somebody else informed Chandler that “the publishers told Huggins, in effect, that it was bad enough for him to steal my approach and my method or whatever, but stealing my characters was going a little too far. I understand there was some rewriting, but cannot vouch for any of this.”

   The letter to Adams can be found in Selected Letters of Raymond Chandler, ed. Frank MacShane (1981), pp. 125-126. This is the only reference to Huggins in the index to MacShane’s book, but a careful reader will find Chandler revisiting the incident in later correspondence. Writing to spy novelist and later Watergate conspirator E. Howard Hunt on November 16, 1952, he says:

   “As you may know, writers like Dashiell Hammett and myself have been widely and ruthlessly imitated, so closely as to amount to a moral plagiarism…. I have had stories taken scene by scene and just lightly changed here and there. I have had lines of dialogue taken intact, bits of description also word for word. I have no recourse. The law doesn’t call it plagiarism.”

   Exactly nine months later, on September 16, 1953, writing to a master at his alma mater Dulwich College, he adds a bit more detail to the story.

   “A few years ago a man wrote a story which was a scene by scene steal from one of mine. He changed names and incidents just enough to stay inside the law…. The publisher to whom the book was sent demanded indignantly of the agent submitting it how he dared send them a book by Chandler under a pseudonym without saying so. When he learned that I had not had anything to do with the book he demanded certain changes to tone down the blatancy of the imitation and then published it. It did very well too.”

   These quotations come respectively from pp. 334 and 352 of MacShane’s collection.

   Huggins’ Hollywood career began when The Double Take sold to the movies and he was hired to write the screenplay for what was released as I Love Trouble (1948), with Franchot Tone as Bailey. By the time Chandler died, in 1959, Huggins had created Maverick and 77 Sunset Strip and both series were prime-time hits, but the creator of Philip Marlowe watched very little TV and may never have known that a sardonic prophecy he had made in his letter to Cleve Adams had come true:

   “More power to Mr. Huggins. If he has been traveling on borrowed gas to any extent, the time will come when he will have to spew his guts into his own tank.”

   Which is precisely what Huggins did.

 Posted by at 12:10 am
Jul 262014
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


OSMINGTON MILLS – At One Fell Swoop. Geoffrey Bles, UK, hardcover, 1963. Roy, US, hardcover, 1965.

   Aware that the case won’t do his career any good, Superintendent William Baker of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch nonetheless undertakes the investigation of the missing head of the C.I.D. in Bramwith. The policeman, a lay preacher in the Johnsonite sect, had disappeared shortly before he was to address a centenary celebration of the sect, if the Johnsonites can be said to celebrate.

   Since the policeman’s wife had tried to divorce him for cruelty and now has a lover, she and the lover are the first suspects, if there has indeed been foul play. Information also turns up that the C.I.D. man had with him on his travels two warrants; perhaps the individuals sought made sure that the warrants would not be served.

   Possible, too, is the involvement of the police superintendent where the C.I.D. man was going to serve the warrants. But what role does the leek slasher play?

   A good investigation by Baker and his assistant, Inspector Hughes, and an engrossing portrait of a fundamentalist Christian sect. Forgive the far-fetched coincidences and enjoy this one.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


BIBLIOGRAPHIC NOTES:

      The Insp. (Supt.) William Baker series —

Unlucky Break. Bles, 1955.
The Case of the Flying Fifteen. , Bles, 1956.
No Match for the Law. Bles, 1957.
Misguided Missile. Bles 1958.
Stairway to Murder. Bles, 1959.
Trial by Ordeal. Bles, 1961.
Headlines Make Murder. Bles, 1962.
At One Fell Swoop. Bles, 1963.
Traitor Betrayed. Bles, 1964.
Enemies of the Bride. Bles, 1966.

   Osmington Mills was the pseudonym of Vivian Collin Brooks (1922-2002), whose other series, eight in all, recorded the cases of Chief Insp. Rupert “Rip” Irving and P.C. (Sgt.) Patrick C. Shirley.

 Posted by at 6:42 pm
Jul 232014
 
IT’S ABOUT CRIME
by Marv Lachman

FRANK PARRISH – Death in the Rain. Dodd Mead, hardcover, 1984. Perennial Library, paperback, 1986. First published in the UK as Face at the Window (Constable, hardcover, 1984).

   Fans of Dick Francis will enjoy that other master of the narrative, Frank Parrish, whose fifth book about Dan Mallett, Death in the Rain, is in paperback from Perennial Library. We identify with Francis’s heroes and feel every bit of pain inflicted by sadistic villains. With Parrish’s “professional” poacher, we observe nature as if we are also lying on the English ground, feeling the cold and dampness. He is marvelously knowledgeable about the Wessex countryside made famous by Thomas Hardy.

   Death in the Rain plays down the major weakness in prior Mallett books, his long-standing attempt to get money for the hip operation his mother won’t consider free, under British socialized medicine. Yet Mrs. Mallett plays a greater role in this book, and she is a delightful supporting character.

   She and Natasha Chapman, a very believable young actress, help compensate for a plot with some structural weaknesses. There are too many coincidences, too many blackmailers, and too many people simultaneously in (or watching) the murder flat.

   Those are the only flaws I can discuss without giving away too much plot, but suffice it to say that, warts and all, this is as much fun to read as Parrish’s prior novels about one of the more unusual series characters of the 1980s. The first four Mallett books are also available from Perennial and equally recommended.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bibliographic Notes: Frank Parrish was the pen name of Roger Longrigg. (1929-2000). Under his own name he has two marginal entries in Hubin. Other pseudonyms are: Laura Black (four novels), Ivor Drummond (nine adventures of Jennifer Norrington, Alessandro di Ganzarello & Coleridge Tucker III) and Domini Taylor (nine novels).

       The Dan Mallett series –

Fire in the Barley. Constable, 1977.

Sting of the Honeybee. Constable, 1978.
Snare in the Dark. Constable, 1982.
Bait on the Hook. Constable, 1983.
Face at the Window. Constable, 1984. US: Death in the Rain.
Fly in the Cobweb. Constable, 1986.
Caught in the Birdlime. Constable, 1987. US: Caught in the Net.

Voices from the Dark. Constable, 1993. No US edition.

 Posted by at 12:20 am
Jul 212014
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


FRANCIS ALLAN – First Come, First Kill. Reynal & Hitchcock, hardcover, 1945 Bantam #34, 1946.

   In the midst of her honeymoon, Linda Gordon (née Payne) has to return to New York City because her father had, most unlike him — he’d never done it before, you see — committed suicide. Or so it would seem.

   Luckily, Mr. Payne had previously called in John Storm, private detective, to investigate an attempt at extortion by a singularly strange woman. Storm concludes Payne was murdered, a crime committed by a cool and devious person for gain, and Linda might be next.

   Besides Linda, four men inherit under Payne’s will. Since only one of them is both cool and devious, he must be the murderer. He should have been easy to spot also because he had had to carry a body that had been buried for two weeks without benefit of mortician. Bound to leave its mark, one would think, but this does not occur to Storm.

   Allan’s characters do a lot of gasping, occasionally half gasping. Curiously, the asthmatic doesn’t; instead, he sneezes. They also do a significant amount of communicating with their eyes, which are hot, or sick and vacant, or ex-pressing animal fury, or half angry, though which half is not made clear.

   A strange choice for Bantam to reprint early in its history.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bibliographic Notes: Francis K. Allan (1916-1997) was a prolific writer for the detective pulps. Assuming the link will stay fixed, you can find a list of some his stories here. Allan was also the author two other hardcover novels: The Invisible Bridge (Reynal, 1947) and Death in Gentle Grove (Mason/Charter, 1976).

 Posted by at 2:21 am
Jul 202014
 
THE ARMCHAIR REVIEWER
Allen J. Hubin


GEOFFREY MARSH – The Fangs of the Hooded Demon. Tor, hardcover, 1988; reprint paperback, 1989.

   I’ve not before encountered Geoffrey Marsh and his Lincoln Blackthorne series, of which the present The Fangs of the Hooded Demon is the fourth. Blackthorne is a tailor in New Jersey, of all things, to whom incredible experiences accrue.

   If Demon is any guide, these tales are part mystery and crime, part unresolved fantasy and mysticism, with Blackthorne functioning more or less in the role of private investigator. Or maybe a land-bound Travis McGee.

   Here he’s hired, or maybe forced, to track down the titular fangs, which are bejeweled false teeth with reputed powers of rejuvenation if the right ritual is used at the right time. Various aged and villainous Hollywood rejects want the fangs desperately, and the peril-around-every-corner chase leads to New York, then to Oklahoma, and finally to the oozing swamps of Georgia.

   Frantic and imaginative, and I suspect quite enjoyable if your tastes run to this sort of thing.

— Reprinted from The MYSTERY FANcier,
       Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bibliographic Note: It is now known that Geoffrey Marsh was one of several pen names used by Charles L. Grant (1942 – 2006), a noted horror and fantasy writer whose books sometimes verged into crime fiction territory, as did the Blackthorne novels.

      The Lincoln Blackthorne series (as by Geoffrey Marsh) –

1. The King of Satan’s Eyes (1984)
2. The Tail of the Arabian, Knight (1986)
3. The Patch of the Odin Soldier (1987)
4. The Fangs of the Hooded Demon (1988)

 Posted by at 6:30 pm
Jul 102014
 
THE BACKWARD REVIEWER
William F. Deeck


PETER PIPER [THEO LANG] – The Corpse That Came Back. Random House, US, hardcover, 1954. First published in the UK: Hodder & Stoughton, hardcover, 1952, as Death in the Canongate.

   The fairly portly chess-playing Detective-Inspector O. (as in Oliver, though his name isn’t Oliver) Gray of Scotland Yard is in Edinburgh to attend as many concerts as possible at the International Festival. When the local police ask him to take a hand in the investigation of the appearance of the corpse of Bailie Andrew Maclachlan, who had planned his own funeral to the minutest detail and had been cremated, or so everyone thought, Gray disrupts, but only a little, his plans.

   He manages to get in his sightseeing, giving readers a splendid rendering of the tourist’s Edinburgh, and the musical offerings of the Festival while discovering why the corpse has turned up most unexpectedly.

   A police procedural both interesting and amusing, one of seemingly only two featuring Gray. This is a pity, for Gray is a delightful character.

   According to Random House, Lang wrote under a pseudonym while he was in the British Army during World War II because he didn’t want to go through the red tape of getting permission to write. After writing several books on walking trips, Lang wrote a series of books about the antiquities of Scotland.

– From The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1989.


Bibliographic Notes:   Bill was in error, or rather two, when he wrote up his notes on this book. There were three Inspector Gray books, the other two being Murder After the Blitz (Hurst, 1943) and Death Came in Straw (Hurst, 1945), neither of which had US editions and hence are as scarce as hen’s teeth today. And Piper’s real name was Theo Langbehn, although he did write one mystery as Theo Lang.

   As Peter Piper, he wrote two other works of crime fiction, both in Hubin, with no series characters noted. What has always been a problem for me, is trying to keep from being confused between the author Peter Piper, and the character Katherine “Peter” Piper, who appeared in seven works of detection fiction by Amelia Reynolds Long, but I think I finally have them straight now.

 Posted by at 3:16 pm
Jul 082014
 

WILL ERMINE – My Gun Is My Law. Pocket 911; paperback reprint; 1st printing, November 1952. Hardcover editions: William Morrow, October 1942; Grosset & Dunlap, 1946; Jefferson House “Triple-A Western Classic,” March 1950. Also published in Double-Action Western, May 1943 (perhaps abridged). Introduction to Jefferson House and Pocket editions by Erle Stanley Gardner.

   I didn’t know this before doing some research on the subject, but as it so happens, Will Ermine is one of several pen names that Harry Sinclair Drago (1888-1979) used to write westerns, including his own.

   Another of Drago’s assumed aliases is Bliss Lomax, which I knew, and a quick dive into the Internet produced some other information. Not all of his books were westerns, for example. One of his books, Playthings of Desire (Macaulay, 1924), as by J. Wesley Putnam, is about the illicit affairs of a Broadway actress, and was the basis for a silent film of the same name. Starring were Estelle Taylor, Mahlon Hamilton, Dagmar Godowsky and Mary Thurman. When the movie was produced again in 1933, the featured players were Linda Watkins, James Kirkwood, Reed Howes and Josephine Dunn.

   None of these people were previously known to me. Perhaps they were household names at the time. Fame is sometimes a fleeting thing.

   Getting back to western fiction, though, here’s an interesting look into the effort that Drago did to make his western fiction as authentic as possible. The paragraph below is taken from Richard Patterson’s introduction to a book that Drago did on the history of the west, Outlaws on Horseback: The History of the Organized Bands of Bank and Train Robbers Who Terrorized the Prairie Towns of Missouri, Kansas, Indian Territory, and Oklahoma for Half a Century, reprinted by the University of Nebraska Press in 1998:

    “Although Harry Sinclair Drago did most of his writing within a cab ride of New York’s Hudson River, he probably knew parts of the American West better than some who spent their lives there. A committed researcher, Drago once memorized the names of over a thousand counties in the western states and territories. To avoid mistakes, he kept pages of an 1890 atlas pinned to the wall of his office.”

   The original edition of this work was published by Bramall House in 1964. For another view of Drago’s attitude toward writing, I can’t tell you where the following quote first appeared, one I found on the Internet, but here it is anyway:

    When asked how he wrote over 100 books: “Four pages a day, that’s how you write 100 books. That’s how you write books.”

   My Gun Is My Law is a title that really doesn’t have anything much to do with the book of the same name. As Erle Stanley Gardner points out in his introduction, the central theme of this western novel is the family feud. Two of the men who originally settled the hundred-mile length of Spirit Valley, Jube (Stonewall) Gordon and Rusty Cameron soon began fighting each other, their hatred beginning a quarrel between the two that lasted for forty years, claiming the lives of most of both men’s sons, not to mention scores of men who worked for either side.

   For most of that time the feud was fought according to rules. From page 3:

   For one, you did not shoot an enemy in the back, or fire at him unless he was properly warned. Also, it was possible to meet him while he was on lawful business and unless he gave fresh offence you did not make war on him. It was a quixotic, even an absurd code; but it was a code, and in this Spirit Valley country there had always been black disgrace for the Cameron partisan or Gordon adherent who had dared violate it.

   As you see, this is very much in the vein of the traditional western, which also means, of course, there is also a romance involved, no matter how serious and how deadly the feud between the two families may be. Here’s a rather long quote from page 10, and you’re probably way ahead of me on this. At a local dance, with both sides in attendance, and on their “best” behavior toward each other:

    By now, every eye in the room was trained on Cape [Cameron] as he stood before Necia [Gordon], tall and straight, his blue eyes alive and reckless in his young face. With a grace few suspected he possessed, he bowed to her.

    “Miss Gordon,” he said so softly that many could not hear, “might I have the honor of this dance with you?”

    Men and women held their breath, stunned by his request and certain that Necia would say no and put him in his place. They were in no doubt as to what would follow. Guns would talk here tonight. They knew they should be thinking of their own safety, getting out of the way. For the moment, however, they were helpless to do anything about it. A spell had been put on them, and they could only stare at Cape and Necia.

    They saw him regard him with a curious interest, the color coming and going in her cheeks. She seemed calm enough, with Cape’s preposterous advance ringing in her ears and the eyes of everyone in the room on her. They knew she was alive to the significance of this moment and its inevitable consequences, and they told themselves that if she was slow to answer it was only because she wanted what she said to be adequate and final.

    But, to their surprise, something flowed into her dark eyes that was warm and friendly. A smile parted her lips.

    “I’d be most pleased to dance with you, Mr. Cameron,” she said simply and with a trace of her father’s familiar drawl.

   With well over 150 pages of small print to go in the paperback edition, this is of course only the first step toward a truce, and not all of the characters survive to the end. As a matter of fact, the local doctor, a young fellow somewhat acquainted with the new science of ballistics, does a fine job of detective work, finding a killer in a shooting where no one was even suspected. Microscopes do come in handy! – even in a land where guns make up 90% of the law.

   For a fellow that started early in the pulps (circa 1922), Drago/Ermine has a flair for the right word in the right place, albeit with a certain stiffness in the telling every so often. From this (admittedly) small sample of size one, I’d definitely say he’s worth seeking out and hunting down to read more of his work.

— Reprinted from Durn Tootin’ #7 , July
    2005 (slightly shortened and revised).


 Posted by at 9:46 pm